To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20).  I like the juxtaposition we experience this week as we begin the fourth book of Torah.  This penultimate book and the opening parsha share the Hebrew name Bemidbar (In the wilderness) while its English equivalent, Numbers, has a nice tie-in with the unique period of time in the Jewish calendar year, the Sefirah (the Counting of the Omer).  The counting or numbering referred to in our parsha (1:5-44) is the Israelite census.

The challenge seems to be to look beyond the counting of individuals to see how each individual counted as a significant member of the community.  A modeling of this distinction is understood through the role of the Levites (1:47-54).  While the Levites were unique, they were not counted in the original census.  Yet, the community counted on them for their integral leadership in the community's ritual practices.   Each tribe and the individuals within those cohorts were called upon to fulfill their roles to sustain the community.  There was an interdependency which continues today as the foundation of being a part of a covenantal community.

The very nature of covenant is a willingness to enter into relationship with others to create a sustainable community.  The sustainability is based on a foundational belief that we can be counted on to uphold our part of the agreement.  When an individual is not dependable, then the trust of others starts to erode and the very fabric of the communal enterprise unravels.  One need only to look at the scandalous mismanagement of certain VA hospitals in the United States to see that veterans who upheld their commitment to serve and defend this nation could not count on those who were entrusted to provide care and support for them.  When a pledge made in the heat of the 2007 Presidential campaign is ultimately merely verbiage seven years later, trust is lost because individuals cannot be counted on to keep their promises.

We are left to feel that our society is wandering in the wilderness.  The midbar is not so much a geographic location as it is an attitude or orientation.  When our leadership lacks the will to responsibly model the commitment to be counted on, then interdependency within a cohesive and just society erodes, leaving us feeling adrift.  When the clear moral mileposts of an envisioned communal destiny sadly appear to be merely a mirage, we are left feeling that everyone is only in it for themselves.

Some will be found guilty of the selfishness, mismanagement and despicable behavior which led to the death of veterans and the poor medical care of many others.  But if this is truly a just society, we need to remember that while some are guilty, all of us are responsible:  accountable to one another so that we may sustain a just and compassionate society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34). The parsha is the concluding section in the Book of Leviticus and it serves as a warning:  "don't trick yourself into believing that your actions do not have consequences."  How we live each and every day will have an impact on our lives and on the lives of those around us.  As we see again later in the Book of Deuteronomy, this last refrain in the Holiness Code is an admonition that no matter how insignificant we may think we are, how inconsequential we may believe are our seemingly most trivial acts, gestures or remarks, all leave a moral imprint.

The emotional weight of this parsha is such that when the Tochacha, the Punishment section (26:14-39), is read in the synagogue, it is chanted in muted tones as if implying that if we were to utter it even in our normal speaking voice we would surely bring Divine wrath upon us.  Yet, perhaps there is another reason for the whispering of these warnings:  that we will strain to hear what is being read and hence be compelled to pay greater attention.

The message of our portion is deceptively simple:  if the guiding principles of our life are rooted in the laws and precepts of a morally just and spiritually healthy way of living, then we will find blessings in what we do, but if they are not, there will be negative consequences.  But let us not look at this as "the acts of G-d" theory of life, but rather "the everyday person" approach of taking responsibility for one's own actions:  climate change as an act of G-d/the amoral dynamics of nature or as the consequences of our lack of environmental stewardship.

The Tochacha needs to be looked at as warning rather than punishment.  There is much about our lives which is beyond our control, yet that does not absolve us from trying in whatever way possible to live healthy, meaningful, productive lives.  Our fears of stumbling all too frequently prevent us from challenging ourselves to do better.  Failure is not a punishment.  Rather, lack of trying and defeatism are the retribution we bring upon ourselves.

And how might we redeem ourselves?  Since I can't verbally say this in the whispered tones of the public reading of the Torah, you will have to strain your eyes and be visually attentive:  that which is in your control, do it to the best of your ability.  Only you will know if you are doing it with all your heart and soul and energy.  And when you do, the awkwardness will transform into a contentment of being, an inner calm, a wholeness and a healing .   For as we say upon the completion of every book of Torah, "chazak, chazak, v'netchazek," (be strong, be strong and may we strengthen one another).

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2).  Its focus is the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.  The significance of seven segment cycles, different permutations of the sacred nature of sabbaths, mentioned in last week's portion (the Sabbath at the end of a seven-day cycle; Shavuot, known as the festival of weeks, concluding a seven-week cycle; and the seventh month, from a biblical reckoning, which is abundant with High Holy Days and festival moments) continues in our parsha with the affirmation of a time for both the rest due to the land (Sabbatical year, 25:2-7) and the elimination of debt (the Jubilee year, 25:8-55).

The message is a poignant one:  all that we have is but lent to us.  "The land is not to be sold in perpetuity... (25:23)."  As the psalmist reminds us, "the earth is Adonai's and all that is in it, the world and all its inhabitants (Psalm 24:1)."  We are strangers and settlers with G-d, the Torah reiterates.  We can attempt to acquire, we may even be driven to hoard, all as a way, perhaps, to validate a sense of self-worth, yet,  this is a delusional way to live.  Rather the Torah suggests, we prepare well and have faith that in those years (times) when we cannot sow and reap, that our anticipation, our preparations, will carry us through those times when the earth (our life) is fallow.

The beauty of the Torah's message is that the same language which is used to describe our status "on the land," that we are strangers and settlers (25:23), is the same language used to describe the person who has fallen on hard times (25:35).   He, too, is seen as a stranger and we are admonished to provide relief for that individual out of a sense of moral responsibility, out of an empathetic obligation,  because we are called upon "to not wrong one another" (25:17).

The Torah emphasizes the importance of seeing each moment as a precious gift.  It calls upon us to look at life's sacred cycles as a way of sensitizing us to be aware and take measure of each moment.

In the Jewish calendar we are presently in the seven-week cycle that links Passover and Shavuot.  Known as the Sefirah, the Counting of the Omer, during each of these forty-nine days we intone a daily prayer acknowledging the agricultural growing period which will lead to the summer harvest.  But it is more than the counting of anticipation; it is also the awareness of the fleeting nature of time and our obligation to make each day count.

Recently, while facilitating a discussion with a group of individuals whose average age is eighty-five, a participant said that for her the blessing of life is that she awoke that morning and was able to get out of bed and eventually join with others in exploring the day.

She went on to say,  "I have realized that earlier in life I took each moment for granted.  I acquired and even at times I was gluttonous, both in material possessions and in the status I believed I was entitled to in life. But then I fell on some hard times and eventually the passing years took from me those to whom I was closest.  I don't so much miss the wealth, I am still able to financially get by, but I do miss the people who have passed on.  I took them for granted.   Now I am trying with whatever time I have left to make each day, each encounter have meaning.  I don't take anything for granted anymore."

A silence followed her words.  As I looked around at the other eight women and men who were present, the nodding of their heads, the tears in  their eyes made the group affirmation clear.  As the liturgical reflection from Gates of Prayer at the House of Mourning offers:  "all things pass... all that we prize is but lent to us, and the time comes when we must surrender it.  We are travelers on the same road that leads to the same end."

May we learn to "number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)"

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23).  The opening sections of this parsha (21:1-22:16) continue with particulars regarding the nature of holiness by focusing on the priests (the communal leadership).  What was explored in the previous parshiot were the ways in which each member of the community was obligated to live a life imbued with the sacred.  To reaffirm that commitment, the Torah returns to the specific responsibilities of both the general leadership (the priests) and to the even higher standards imposed upon the top leader, the High Priest.  The message could not be more clear:  the honor and responsibility of leadership demands that the leaders be held to a higher standard.  Those who seek to reap the bounty of entitlement through the privileged role of leadership while exempting themselves from the sacred obligations to model a higher standard of holy endeavors not only tarnish themselves but also undercut the striving to create "a kingdom of priests and a holy people." (Exodus 19:6)

These sections conclude with a foundational moral demarcation:  the distinction between profaning and hallowing the Divine name (22:32-33).  We are called upon to be aware of the motivations for all of our actions:  are we striving to realize the sacred in life or to delay its possibility?

Recently, a friend asked me about the nature of holiness and a striving toward the sacred in life.  He wondered how a person knew if he/she was actually heading along the morally correct path, for he felt that the striving was often elusive.  He said, "you mentioned in a D'var Torah about having a 'gut feeling,' but there has to be more to it than just a good sense about things.  That seems to imply that you are always going by the seat of your pants."

Comments by Rashi regarding the next chapter of the portion might be of help.  Chapter 23 offers a description of the sacred days of holy communal gathering throughout the calendar year.  They are described as "Moaday Adonai," the appointed/fixed times in the year when the community is to come together in affirming its relationship to one another and to the Other.  Yet after the general introduction of these appointed seasons, before their specifics are delineated, the Torah mentions (23:3) the sacred nature of the Sabbath.  Rashi questions the significance of this insert, as the Sabbath is understood as distinct from the Festivals and the High Holy Days.

Rashi states that in observing the festivals we are reminded of our obligation to the Sabbath and likewise our disregard for the festivals will lead to a similar disregard for the Sabbath.  In essence, the acknowledgement and observance of these appointed times will lead us to a structured way of understanding the sacred as opposed to the common.

The common is the rote nature of so much of what we do.  The sacred is an awareness of that which is all too often hidden as we rush from one thing to the next.  The Sabbath is our weekly reminder that life is more than just getting by, completing the checklist.  To observe the timebound beauty of festivals and holy days is to allow ourselves to be open to the potential for meaningful living which we frequently do not experience.  While "keep on truckin" may have been the laid back mantra of the '60s, observance of holy days of rest, introspection and reflection is the eternal discipline to an awareness of life's sacred beauty.

Through our observance of appointed moments in the week and through the year, we can develop an awareness of the sacred potential which can suffuse the common day-to-day experience.  It is the striving toward this "moral memory" which makes the "gut feeling" more than just going by the seat of one's pants.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch